I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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On this particular day in 1987, as I bicycled home from the student rec center, no one mooed at me. Mooers seemed to have grown scarcer than they’d been in my fat years as a teenager, despite the fact that I was now even bigger than that and went outside more frequently. Maybe it was because I projected more confidence these days, or maybe a woman over twenty-five just didn’t attract the same kind of attention from men. Whatever the reason, I now got only a dozen or so moos per month, usually from men traveling in pairs or groups. It could happen when I was biking or walking, but rollerblading was the spectacle that delighted them most.
Today I had just finished a good workout, and I was proud of the way I felt and imagined myself to look, speeding exuberantly along under my own muscle power. Surely anyone could see how thoroughly at home I was in my body. The iron-pumping men in the weight room always nodded respectfully to me. My workouts, like theirs, were profound exertions that altered my consciousness. Like them, I had tested and gradually extended the limits of my physical capacity over months and years. My relationship with my body was no different from any other trained athlete’s.
I still had a slight endorphin buzz from the workout. I felt energy and pleasure shining from my skin. I put the bike away and went to the rack of apartment mailboxes, feeling like a walking advertisement for fat pride.
“You look tired!” an elderly woman called out merrily from a second-floor window to my right.
What? I kept my gaze grimly focused on the mailboxes. She didn’t even know me. What was she doing talking to me at all, let alone saying something so imbecilic? I had no more obligation to respond to her, I told myself, than I did to one of the mooers.
“You look tired!” she said again, a bit louder, as if I hadn’t heard her. There was no malice in her tone. She obviously intended her remark to be sociable.
I had once comforted myself through a heartbreak by reading a wickedly funny advice book by Judith Martin, aka “Miss Manners.” Before that, I had thought of etiquette as a collection of insincerities practiced by people too timid or stupid to express themselves in more-original ways. Miss Manners had revolutionized my thinking. Etiquette could be subtle, intellectually demanding, and as full of emotional tensions as any great novel. Miss Manners writes that “You look tired” should not be regarded as a welcome observation. Clearly this woman at the window was out of line. On the other hand, Miss Manners writes that younger people, even under provocation, must be outwardly respectful to their elders. Then again, Miss Manners also says that being polite doesn’t require you to give your time away to strangers: you may gently let them know that they have pulled you away from your private concerns.
“What?” I said, glancing up and around as if startled from my reverie: Surely you don’t mean me, do you?
“I said, ‘You look tired,’ ” the woman repeated. Once my face was aligned with hers, she faltered. “Aren’t you . . . You work in the office there, don’t you?”
“No,” I said. The receptionist at the Casa Feliz Apartments was Mexican American; I am Anglo. I wore my hair however it happened to fall after showering, whereas her dark, thick hair was pressed into gravity-defying curves. Her creamy, well-tended complexion contrasted with my pimples, blotches, and peeling. Her face was rounder, her features softer than mine. She was shorter than I, and smaller in the hips, more cylindrical than pear-shaped. She favored feminine outfits and big hoop earrings. I dressed for action. Other than the fact that we were both fat, we looked nothing alike. Could this woman have been thinking of someone besides the receptionist? Her eyesight was probably poor. Maybe from that distance she could see only a smeary blob, anyway. But if so, where did she get off presuming to announce that the blob looked tired?
“I think you have me confused with some other fat woman,” I said. I may have missed by a slight margin the genteel Miss Manners tone I was aiming for.
The woman’s head snapped back as if she’d been slapped. “I didn’t say that.” Her voice sounded both defensive and affronted. She struggled for a moment, and I could see her weighing social acceptability against grievance. “I would never say anything like that —” midsentence, she rallied and found solid footing in indignation — “because I have some manners.”
I pondered a range of responses: It’s interesting you mention manners, ma’am, because Miss Manners has pointed out that “You look tired” is not a compliment. Or: Miss Manners says that personal remarks should not be addressed to strangers. Or: You seem to regard the word fat as some sort of obscenity. Why is that, exactly?
My endorphin buzz had ebbed by then. Now I was tired. “Actually,” I said, “being fat is not as bad as you might think. There are lots worse things than being fat.” Self-hatred is worse, I thought, or hiding in shame. Anorexia and bulimia are worse. I was prepared to elaborate, but the woman withdrew from the window without inviting further conversation.
I was aware back then, in the late eighties, that such a thing as a fat-liberation movement existed, but I didn’t know how to take part in it. There was widespread bigotry against fat people, I understood, on roughly the same order as racial or sexual discrimination. There was scientific error comparable to the suppression of Galileo’s findings. There was terrible suffering that was mostly invisible or was trivialized because the fat were ridiculous. And these persecutors didn’t even need to burn and torture: fat people punished themselves. It was wrong the way we were treated; it was even — yes, why not? — evil, and I had a moral duty to combat it.
But what could I do? A movement needs courageous leaders, great orators. My college career was a muddled shambles. While trying to get thin — first unsuccessfully and then later with anorexic success — I had flunked classes and changed majors repeatedly. After eight years in college, I had no professional goals, was nowhere near graduation, and hadn’t even declared a major. All my reading and thinking and feeling weren’t going to change the world by themselves.
I had realized that being fat didn’t mean I was lazy or greedy or a failure as a human being. But what came next? If I wanted to go out and rescue other fat people from misguided self-loathing, I needed to be a better person: Someone more accomplished and eloquent. Someone bigger, emotionally stronger.
I had a friend named Zhenya, whom I’d first met in 1980, in Russian class. Her name was actually Jean, like mine, but I continued to call her by the Russian name we’d used in class, partly out of nostalgia, and partly for the convenience of friends who needed to distinguish between the two of us in conversation.
When we’d taken Russian together, Zhenya had been fat too, though not in the same league as I’d been at my biggest. She dressed in long, unstylish skirts and subdued colors, mostly dark greens that spoke to me of emotional depths. Her long brown hair was restrained in a heavy braid.
Over the course of the decade, as my weight seesawed, I passed Zhenya more than once, going up and down. I began slightly thinner than Zhenya, then got fatter for a year, then abruptly very thin indeed, and then gradually fat again, and now extremely fat. Meanwhile, she had slowly thinned, her side of the seesaw ascending. And now she daintily sat, fashionably dressed, hair cut short, almost at the top of the seesaw’s range, while my butt was solidly planted at the bottom, and it looked as if neither of us would ever budge again. I missed the old days, not because I envied her present thinness — I refused to envy the thin, and, anyway, I assumed that Zhenya had gone anorexic — but because any fool could appreciate Zhenya’s looks now; it no longer took a special sensibility like mine.
For as long as Zhenya and I had been friends, she had held me at a studied distance: this close, but no closer. Now that our bodies had diverged so widely, would it make our friendship even more remote? I didn’t want to think so. As a good fat activist, I knew I shouldn’t feel that my body encumbered me in the pursuit of affection.
Zhenya had even, in the intervening years, had an affair with a woman. I thought it should have been me who’d achieved that intimacy with her. I was married now, but it could have been me, in the days when we were both available — and both fat.
During the brief time when the seesaw had been almost perfectly balanced, we’d had a conversation about violence. We’d just seen the movie Raging Bull, with its appalling scenes of boxers’ faces and bodies being repeatedly pounded. Zhenya said she couldn’t understand why anyone wanted to watch a prize fight. “Me neither,” I said, “although . . . there’s something that makes me almost understand it. When men, you know, say things. About your body. Strangers, I mean.”
I was too ashamed to mention fat directly, too ashamed to mention the mooing, too ashamed to mention the shame that the mooing caused, the feeling that in some sense I deserved it.
At such times, I said to Zhenya, I could understand violent fantasies. I would punish those men if I could. Hurt them.
Zhenya had a fantasy too, she told me, but hers was different: The men who affronted her would be struck blind on the spot by some righteous supernatural force. Then they would wander the world, enfeebled and weeping ceaselessly from their now-useless eyes. Helpless and fumbling, they would seek after her, because she had been the last person to see them unafflicted. After many groping years, they would find her and fall at her feet, confessing their guilt and begging her pardon. And her forgiveness would restore their sight.
It was like a story out of King Arthur. It went so well with Zhenya’s green skirt and long braid.
It’s a great temptation here to lie. To fudge the history of my conversations, just a little. To make myself, in retrospect, a slightly more effective activist and debater by articulating my thoughts in words that came to me only later.
There was the time, in my thin period, that I had a fling with an older man, a family friend who had known me during my teenage years. He complimented me on my transformed body: “When I first met you, I thought, Now, there’s a woman who has absolutely no interest in sex.” Fat women, he explained, fear sex and overeat so as to avoid coming to terms with their fear.
His theory couldn’t be right, I said. He’d certainly been wrong about me and my sex drive. “I came on to you, remember?”
“Yes, but by then you had changed. Obviously you’d managed to overcome your fear, and once that happened, you were able to lose weight.”
When I told him I’d never feared sex, he said, “Not consciously, maybe.”
It would be nice to claim I didn’t choke on my own anger. Here’s what I might have said: So this alleged motive of mine is perceptible to you but not to me? Here’s an alternative account: You look at a fat woman and feel repulsed, and you then interpret your feelings as something the woman has deliberately caused — kind of like how rapists think the woman was “asking for it.” If, in fact, fat women do make fewer encouraging signals to men than thin women, it’s because they fear rejection.
In reality, of course, I managed only mutters of offended disagreement, and he took the vehemence of my denial as further proof that he must be right. “Why do you think you gained all that weight?” he asked.
I explained, as well as I could, the theory as I then understood it: “I think a lot of people, when they diet to get thin, provoke an overreaction from their bodies and end up fatter.”
“That sounds like bullshit,” he said.
Then there was Sam, the old high-school acquaintance who’d known me on the very first plunge of the seesaw. Abstaining now from alcohol and deeply depressed, Sam wanted to convince me I must have been molested in childhood: “Think about it. I know when I started to drink. When did you start to eat?” By the time of this conversation, I was out of my anorexic period and back up to nearly two hundred pounds.
“Actually, I don’t have an eating problem,” I said. “I had a not-eating problem, but I got over it.”
“Things happen for a reason,” Sam said.
Despite his boldness in embarking on this loving intervention (friends don’t let friends pork up), Sam wasn’t quite bold enough to say the word fat. Meanwhile I was having my own problems addressing Sam. My eyes fastened helplessly on his ravaged face so I wouldn’t have to look at his wheelchair. A couple of years before, in a bad part of town, Sam had been shot in the spine by a stranger who hadn’t been aiming at him. I struggled to appear to be neither obviously avoiding the chair nor morbidly interested in it. I wanted to reject Sam’s account of my life, wanted to say to him, Sometimes things just happen, but I was afraid of how it would sound. I was afraid of the depth of anguish in Sam’s voice, as though his unhappiness had the power to suck me in, the way a black hole absorbs light. Sam had already mentioned suicide. I could sense his despair directly, feel its gravitational pull. He seemed far heavier to me than I seemed to myself.
Was this the kind of thing other people imagined when they looked at my body? Did they see a mangled ruin that had once been a person, now grotesquely pinned under colossal weight, but, horribly, still twitching? Did they wish to get away from it?
I made an effort to shake off the gloom, which seemed to me childish and unkind. We were two people talking, that’s all. Stay open, I told myself. “Not everything has to have some dark, psychological cause,” I said. “There’s physiology too. Bodies are physical.”
“That’s too simple,” Sam said.
Over the years I had developed rich mental models of the anything-but-simple human physiology. Our bodies are designed (in a manner of speaking, that is, by evolutionary pressures through the ages) to be self-preserving. They try to hold themselves in homeostatic balance. They strive to maintain the same temperature whether it’s hot or cold outside; to hang on to their tissue even when food supplies decrease. There are genetic differences in how well our bodies can do this. Then, on top of what’s built into our DNA, there are all these other accidental factors that affect the body over a lifetime — temporarily or, as in Sam’s case, permanently. Behavior, environment, and body chemistry are so intricately woven together that it makes no more sense to say that some Gothic psychodrama is the reason someone is fat than it does to say there’s a reason why a bullet snapped Sam’s spine. You would either have to say there’s no particular reason, or that there are thousands of reasons, most either too big or too small for human comprehension: the brain state that led to the electrochemical impulse that passed through the nerve that triggered the twitch of a finger muscle; the rate of expansion of gases during the milliseconds of the explosion inside the gun barrel; the air the bullet traveled through; and the intervening body tissues. Then there’s the mass of the earth creating gravity, dragging the gunman’s arm down, the sum total of Sam’s past that, at that precise moment, brought him to exactly that point, instead of a foot to the right or left. Even two inches, and his spine would still be intact.
I stammered out a feeble argument, leaving out the bullet analogy, as it didn’t seem polite to mention.
Sam shook his head in wide swings. “I think you do know what really happened,” he said. “You know, even if you don’t remember it right now. It all had to start somewhere.” His voice groaned like a coffin lid opening in the damp crypt, about to disgorge its unspeakable contents. The words banged out like the flapping of shutters against the mildewed siding of a haunted house as the storm begins: “Jean, think: when did you start to eat?”
And the doctors — streams of them over the years: haranguing doctors, tactful doctors, doctors who just want to help. Most fat people avoid going to doctors if they possibly can, because it causes so much shame. Even the gentlest physicians can be as bad as the mooers when they look at you and see only one trait.
Before every appointment I used to rehearse remarks that might startle the doctor into seeing me from a different perspective:
“Are you aware of the health risks associated with being obese?” most doctors would ask.
Gosh, no. The medical profession thinks being fat is unhealthy? Maybe you guys should publicize that.
“I consider it my responsibility as a doctor to ask you: What are you doing about your weight?”
OK, now that you’ve fulfilled your responsibility, can we talk about what I came in for?
“You know, the real problem here might not be your ankle. The real problem here could be your excess weight.”
Do thin people ever come in with this problem?
“Sure, but the issue here is you —”
Does every fat person invariably develop this problem?
“No, but —”
OK, then I’d like to receive the same sort of care and advice you would give a thin patient, please.
I imagined myself controlling the exchange, making my points easily, keeping cool. Of course the reality was never like that. I’d be too shy, too flustered, too irritated. The doctor would have his script too, and he’d have performed it far more times than I had.
“Let’s get you an appointment with our nutritionist. She can help you move to a diet that’s lower in fat and higher in complex carbohydrates.”
You forgot to ask what my eating habits are now!
“Let’s get you started with an exercise program. Why don’t you try going to the gym with a friend? That can really help with your motivation.”
You forgot to ask what my exercise habits are now!
One day I was seeing a sports-medicine specialist I’d gone to for years because my wonky ankle — which I’d broken rollerblading three years earlier — had been interfering with some of my activities. I’d told the man that exercise was central to my life, but he couldn’t quite take it in. Peeking into my chart after he’d left the room, I read what he’d written: “Patient is very overweight. She has recently started doing some aerobic exercise.” Recently?
One day in 1989 Zhenya and I were walking along the sidewalk to a movie. Just ahead at the intersection I saw the light turning yellow; meanwhile a battered white pickup registered at the edge of my vision, though the teenage girls in it hadn’t yet done anything to attract my attention. Yes, girls this time, not men. I doubt they’d started out their evening by saying, “Let’s cruise the streets looking for fat people to harass,” so they must have made a spontaneous decision when they saw me, just as I did when I heard them. The whole exchange took very little time.
“Lose weight!” the girls in the truck called out as they rolled past — sang, really, chanting the words like a cheerleading squad: “Lose weight! Lose weight!” Their voices were high and delighted and secure, enjoying their moment of camaraderie. It’s tempting to call it “innocent,” but it can’t have been — not entirely. They must have intended to cause humiliation, at least, though it’s possible they had no concept of their target as a fully real person like themselves. I might have been a cartoon character to them. I can’t decide if this is better or worse.
The sound of those female voices, coupled with Zhenya’s presence, triggered a reaction in me like the flipping of a switch. All along, unbeknown to me, there must have been some measuring device buried somewhere in my brain or spinal cord that automatically sized up the physical power of potential adversaries. The mooing boys and men had often enraged me, but they had never toggled the action switch to ON, presumably because they had measured out as more dangerous than me. These girls, however, had just made a foolish error: I was more dangerous than they were.
Less than a second after I’d heard their voices, I was searching the sidewalk, then the street, for something to throw. Maneuvering my adrenaline-powered body felt like holding a gushing fire hose that could easily jitter out of my grasp, levitating itself, whipping around in the air and missing its proper target. Urgent signals seemed to be firing past my everyday mind and directly into my muscles — Careful now. Don’t slip! Quick, quick! Nothing mattered but keeping that truck from escaping.
The best rock I could find on the blacktop was disappointing, no bigger around than my thumbnail. As I threw it, I exulted to see the girls’ weak, skinny arms; their bleached split ends; the three of them seated in the cab without even a tight squeeze. I could break these flimsy little skanks like twigs. Even their hair was thin!
The quality of their voices changed the moment the rock pinged off the back window of the truck’s cab: “Fuck you!” “Bitch!” Ragged, angry yells, no longer a singsong chorus. Their surprise was comical. They had not imagined that the cartoon creature could ever make a move to touch them. They must have believed I’d simply turn away in quiet embarrassment. That was what fat people did, of course.
“You fucking bitch!” said the girl at the passenger-side window. Our eyes met. Her righteous indignation was even funnier than their initial surprise.
“Come on, then, if you have a problem with me,” I said. I danced up onto the sidewalk like a boxer, waving my arms. “Come on, babes. I’m right here. Let’s go!” The wish for them to come and fight me was as intensely physical as sexual desire. In that moment, I was confident that I could beat up all three girls together.
I was aware of Zhenya standing silently at my side. Was she admiring my self-respect and courage, or was she furious with me, the way sensible women are when their belligerent dates start fights over nothing?
In any case, there was no fight. The light turned green, and the girls drove away.
“Sorry about all that,” I told Zhenya.
“That’s OK. It’s perfectly fine.”
Well, I took my best shot. That was the cleanest, most direct blow I can remember striking for fat dignity.
Do you see now? Can you see? I’m willing to forgive if you’ll see.